Identification: Sumac is the size of a shrub or small tree, from 3 to 30 feet tall. Each plant has a tall thin trunk that branches out as it grows taller. Leaves are 2-4 inches long, compound and toothed so that they look like feathers. Fruits are small, red and hairy, forming a cone or cluster. If you cut any of the twigs, a gummy white sap will seep out and get your fingers all sticky. Sumac grows well in poor soils or old fields, but cannot tolerate shade. In our area it is commonly found on the side of the road.
One variety of red Sumac is a common Middle Eastern and Mediterranean spice. It was widely used in Europe to give food a tart flavor before the Romans introduced lemons to the area.
Animals also love to eat sumac. As I mentioned in this post, my goats love to eat sumac fruits out of my hand. Poultry also enjoy sumac, as well as other animals like rabbits, moose, deer and mountain sheep.
You may notice some tiny brown worms in the sumac fruits. Though it's probably impossible to avoid the worms entirely, by harvesting early in the season (July) you can get the fruit before most of the worms do. While picking off berries with a fork, keep your eye out for worms or a lot of worm droppings (dark brown grainy bits). Wormy fruit clusters can go to the compost pile or animal feed. Chickens love worms!
Medicinal: A gargle for sore throats can be made with a strong hot tea from the sumac berries.
Other: Sometimes the wood of this plant, greenish or orange in color, is used for napkin rings or picture frames. Sumac stems can also make effective hand drills after they have been dried, or blowtubes and pipestems by burning out the center pith. When green, they work well for weaving baskets.
Cautions: There is a poison variety of Sumac that has drooping white fruit clusters. If the fruit is white, don't eat it! Otherwise all red fruits are perfectly safe to eat and feed animals with. :)
Brown, Tom Jr. Tom Brown's Field Guide to Wilderness Survival. New York: Berkley Books, 1983. Print.
Angier, Bradford. Field Guide to Wild Edible Plants. Harrisburd, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 1974. Print